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Original Issue

Biggest Bird in the bushes

Baltimore's Jim Palmer went to Hagerstown to begin his comeback from an arm ailment

And pitching for our Hagerstown Suns, three-time winner of the Cy Young Award, winner of 265 major league games, Number 22, Jim Palmer."

With that, P.A. announcer and General Manager Bob Miller introduced the 37-year-old Palmer to the capacity crowd of 6,192 at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., which is 70 miles west of Baltimore, which is where Palmer should have been pitching last Sunday.

What's a future Hall of Famer doing pitching in a place like Hagerstown? Well, Palmer has been on the Orioles' disabled list since July 3 with tendinitis in the triceps of his right arm, and he hasn't pitched since he lost to Detroit on June 25, evening his record at 2-2. He and the Baltimore management agreed that the best way for him to work his way back into the rotation was to do some live pitching in the minors. Since Hagerstown was so close to home, Palmer volunteered to go back down to Class A. "I was always pretty good in Class A," said Palmer, who was 11-3 with the Aberdeen Pheasants in 1964, the year before he made the majors.

So on Sunday, Hagerstown became a stop along the way to Cooperstown. Hagerstown is a city of about 40,000 that wears a blue collar and turns out Mack trucks. The Suns' franchise is only three years old, but it is something of a success story, financially and artistically. Owner Lou Eliopulos boasts of the 90 signboards in the outfield, probably the most in baseball, and when Palmer arrived the team was already on top of the Carolina League's Northern Division with a 31-13 second-half record. The day before Palmer's scheduled start, the Suns won three games: a doubleheader and a suspended game from the night before.

"When we got word Palmer was coming," said Eliopulos, "the calls came pouring in. And you know what? Almost every one was from a woman." Amy Scerbo, 17, came from York, Pa., two hours away, with her sister and brother. "I have 30 Jim Palmer posters in my bedroom—10 underwear and 20 baseball. I like the underwear ones better."

Palmer showed up early, at about noon, driving the hour and 15 minutes from his home in Brooklandville, Md., with his daughters, Jamie and Kelly. "I told them they just might be seeing me pitch my last professional game," said Palmer, "although I really didn't think so." In any case, it was a tight situation. The No. 22 uniform G.M. Miller had made up was a little small, and the centerfield wall was only 375 feet away.

The first ball was thrown out by some clown named Ronald McDonald—it was McDonald's Day at the park, as well as Palmer's Day. The pitcher for the Durham Bulls was Duane Ward, the youngest player on the field, having turned 19 May 28. "Let's see," said Ward, "when he was breaking into the majors, I was one."

Palmer got three ovations before he even threw a pitch, one for warming up, one for walking in from the bullpen, and one after Miller's introduction. His first pitch to Freddie Tiburcio was a strike, and he got the 20-year-old to fly to right. Steve Chmil, 22, singled and stole second, but Palmer retired the next two. He breezed through the second and third innings, but ran into some trouble in the fourth. Mike Reynolds, 28, led off with a single, and Keith Hagman, 25, hit a ball to the base of the wall in center that Centerfielder Ken Gerhart, 22, lost in the sun for a double. Bryan Neal, 24, singled in a run. After a line-out, Palmer walked a batter, loading the bases. But then he got two strikeouts.

With the score tied 1-1 in the fifth and two outs, Palmer walked Reynolds. Hagman hit a ball that would have been caught in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium but went off the wall in Hagerstown, and Reynolds scored. So Palmer left the game trailing 2-1. He had thrown 72 pitches, 45 of them strikes, and given up seven hits, two earned runs and two walks while striking out five. The radar gun had his fastball averaging 82 miles an hour. Normally, it would be around 85.

Even if his fastball was not vintage, Palmer's competitive drive was clearly in evidence. In the best Palmer tradition, he had motioned his fielders around. He had paced the mound. "You could hear him groan each time he gave up a hit," said Base Umpire Jay Asher.

After Palmer went into the dugout in the bottom of the fifth, he did some cheerleading. "I told them, 'Come on, get me off the hook.' " They did. Third Baseman Rick Rembielak, 22, hit a three-run homer to stake the Suns to a 4-2 lead, and they went on to win 8-6. Palmer got his first Class A victory since 1967, when he was with Miami, recuperating from back and shoulder problems.

After the rally, Palmer walked to the clubhouse, and Miller said, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a big hand for Jim Palmer.... I can't hear you." As the crowd rose, the song Jim Dandy to the Rescue came over the loudspeakers.

The Bulls were excited about batting against Palmer, but most of them felt he put his briefs on one leg at a time. "His fastball wasn't as fast as I remember from watching him on TV when I was growing up," said Chmil. Hagman was more impressed. "You watch that windup on TV, and then you watch it here, and you just say, 'Wow!' And I've never seen a curve drop like his did today."

The Suns were won over by Palmer. "It was great catching him," said Gerry Melillo, 22. "The thing that impressed me was that he really seemed to want to win. And he didn't big-time anybody."

"I never thought I'd hit a game-winning homer for a future Hall of Famer," said Rembielak. "What a thrill! Great!"

After he showered and iced his arm, Palmer met the press. "My arm feels much better than I thought it would," he said. "I'm satisfied. This was a no-win situation. If you get hit, you look bad, and if you don't, you're supposed to."

When someone suggested he had given up a lot of hits, Palmer took mild offense. "I didn't see too many hard-hit balls, did you? And how many strikeouts did I have? They swing just as hard down here. Of course, I did have an advantage. I like to think I'm more worldly than they are. I've been to Cleveland."

Palmer said the fans were very nice. "I wish I was this well received in Baltimore." He anticipates making at least one or two more starts in Hagerstown, and maybe a few for Triple A Rochester before he's ready to pitch for the Orioles.

After the impromptu press conference, he went over to the fence to sign balls, hats, programs and gloves for more than 10 minutes. Then, on his way out, he ran into Ward, who was the Atlanta Braves' first draft choice last summer. "Were you the other pitcher?" asked Palmer. "I've got one thing to say to you. More fastballs. You've got a great curveball, but you have to establish that fastball low and away if you want to get to the majors.... If you make a mistake with a curve, hang it, they hit it out. But you can make a mistake with the fastball, and they'll still pop it up." The lesson went on for a few more minutes until Palmer said, "Good luck. I enjoyed it." Ward looked as if he were in heaven.

Palmer walked through the Suns' offices, signed some more autographs, posed for some more pictures, got into his sports car and drove away.


Palmer, who pitched five innings, has a 1-0 record in the Carolina League.